If you are a hiker who has considered or is planning a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, there is a good chance that you’ve heard of Piestewa Peak. It is one of the most challenging and well-known hikes in the city. But this mile plus trek up the craggy desert peak is more than just a physical feat. Hiking Piestewa Peak is a part of Phoenix culture, and it can also be very spiritual.

This mountain, so heavily trafficked and easily accessed, still offers her visitors an escape into nature. She will test your body, your mind, and your spirit – if you let her. And while many people strive for the summit (sometimes to their own detriment), you can experience this central Phoenix hiking landmark even if you just go up part way.

There are plenty of guides to this challenging urban hike – so while I will include some trail information here, my main purpose is to remind all her visitors that Piestewa is still a mountain to be loved and respected as the heart of Phoenix.

Is Hiking Piestewa Peak Right For You?

Even though the Piestewa Summit trail is right in the middle of the city, and on paper might not look too concerning, almost every year people die on the mountain. Sometimes it is the heat, dehydration, or even a fall. And I’m sure there are times when it is totally accidental, but I also see many people approach this trail without the respect and preparation that it deserves.

I will talk more about some safety tips below, but my main question when it comes to whether hiking Piestewa Peak is right for you comes down to two questions. Are you aware of the challenge that this trail represents? And are you willing to make decisions based around that?

Questions to Consider

hiking piestewa peak

Don’t let the photos fool you – this is STEEP (c) ABR.

If so, you can ask yourself a couple of things. (1) Are you physically prepared? The Piestewa Peak summit trail may be short, but it is a steep uphill climb from start to finish. Add to that that you will likely be dodging other hikers all the way up and down. It is just that busy.

(2) Are you willing to turn around and give up on the summit if that is the safest thing to do? I’ve been hiking Piestewa Peak before during very hot days. These are days when I decided to turn around. Meanwhile, tourists from colder states kept going up, without even a water bottle to quench their thirst. They might feel ok on the way up and down, if they are lucky, but many of them will have a killer headache in the evening. It’s better to know and acknowledge your limits. If it gets too hot, or you are too tired, please turn around. The reality is, no one but us cares if we make it to the summit… including the mountain. You can get so much out of this challenging urban hike without making it to the top.

My suggestion? Whether you finish or not – stop and take a breath. Piestewa is a beautiful mountain with views in every direction. From her shoulders you can see the city, South Mountain, Mummy Mountain, Quartz Peak, and sometimes more. Take it all in. And hey, if you stop and sit down for a bit, it’s also a great place to people watch.

Trail Summary

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

Almost from the moment you start hiking Piestewa Peak, you will be trekking upwards. And I don’t mean a gentle ascent. I mean, sometimes there are stone steps in the trail, with people panting and struggling up them. At times you might get a little relief, as the track follows the contours of the mountain for short periods, but overall… it is up, up, up. And then you turn around and you go down, down, down. This trail never stops giving you a run for your money. And even the fittest people use it for training. (You will probably, definitely get run over by some of them). Alongside Camelback Mountain, this is certainly among the hardest Central Phoenix hiking options.

There are some distinctions along the trail, but primarily expect to just keep walking upwards. The track itself is a mix of dusty, steep pathway, and rugged stones steps.  Towards the top, there are also parts of the route that pass over flat stones and have chain hand holds.

Navigation

hiking piestewa peak

Gathering at the Summit (c) ABR.

There is one trail junction about 1/3 of the way up, but otherwise, it is fairly straightforward to navigate. That all being said, don’t go off the trail. There are places where you could easily fall and if you fall up here it could be fatal. Not to mention, there are so many people that climb Piestewa that if everyone went off trail, there would be hardly a bush left on her slopes.

It is important to note that who goes up, must come down. It is very steep going up and very steep trying to come back down. While it is less of a cardio workout, it is more of a muscle work out. There are plenty of times when I’ve gotten to the bottom of Piestewa Peak and my legs were trembling from the effort.

Need to Know Information

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

 Official Website

Length of the Trail: 2.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,151 ft

Fee to Enter: No

Bathrooms at the Trailhead: Yes

Need 4WD to Access: No

Access Note: Piestewa Peak is very popular and very busy. While the parking lot has recently be expanded, it can still fill up. I would normally say to go early to make sure that you can park, but even then it can fill up. The best thing is having a plan B when you visit. Just in case. There are several other nearby trailheads.

Safety Considerations

**You are responsible for your own safety while traveling and hiking. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety and these safety tips are not comprehensive.

Speaking of an early hiking Piestewa Peak start… during the summer it isn’t just about finding parking, it’s about not overheating and dying. There is no shade on the Piestewa Summit trail. The stone of the mountain can get to upwards of 150 degrees F. Add all that together with the intensity of this hike, and in the heat it is really not a place you want to be.

Even if you do go during comfortable temperatures, bring water and food. Water is especially important on this challenging urban hike.

Finally, there are seasonal closures to the trail due to the danger to both hikers and rescue personnel. DO NOT DISOBEY CLOSURES. Not only will this endanger you, but anyone who may need to come to try to save you if something were to happen.

The Mountain That’s the Heart of Phoenix

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

Piestewa Peak isn’t just a famous hiking area, it’s the heart of the city in many ways. Of course, the mountain was here long before Phoenix was. She has watched people come to the Valley for the first time, thousands of years ago. She’s watched indigenous people make a home here, and build the canals that the modern city was eventually constructed around.

She has watched as the times changed and the tides of people shifted – from the Hohokam to the O’odham, Apaches, and others. And she watched as Europeans and their descendants came and built among the rivers. A city rising.

There are photos and paintings of Piestewa Peak before the city swept up around her. She presided over the desert before it was paved over. And she will continue to do so when we leave.

Climbing her slopes isn’t just a challenge, it’s an opportunity to connect to a mountain that has seen many things. Please respect her. That means staying on the trail. Not littering. Being kind to others – even if the crowding makes that hard sometimes.

Invasive Plants and Piestewa 

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

While to the untrained eye, while hiking Piestewa Peak’s slopes, one might think that the mountain looks dry and unlively – it is, in fact, a vibrant and changing place. There are many plants and animals that call the peak home, and recently there are some new comers to the desert that are really changing things up.

Among vertebrates, like starlings, lovebirds (my favorites), cats, and others, there are also plants. And you might be surprised to know that these new plants can really change the entire ecosystem here. Among these are buffelgrass, which were introduced and continues to be introduced in Mexico as forage for cattle. It’s an exceptional grass. Extremely hardy – it thrives in the heat and dryness of the Sonoran Desert. And it has a strong partnership with fire, which is one of the reasons that it is such a force in the desert.

Fire Shapes the Our Habitats

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

You see, the Sonoran Desert doesn’t do well with fire. Without these new grasses, the desert is a patchy place, where dirt used to make plants little islands. It’s not a place where fire can easily spread. But not so with hardly little buffelgrass moving in everywhere. Fire not only spreads across the desert, but it burns extremely hotly. What it burns, very often does not grow back, or at least not in the ways that we are used to. And particularly, my beloved saguaros die and don’t return with seasons of fire. They are too slow growing. And fire kills young saguaros outright and makes older ones that survive being burned more prone to disease and early death. Fire might be the eventual cause of their extinction.

But people are doing their best to understand how things like buffelgrass can be managed in places like Piestewa Peak. Some options, if you’d like to help, is to join a buffelgrass pull with the parks. You can also support organizations like the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance, and McDowell Sonoran Conservancy who do this work regularly.

What’s In A Name? 

hiking piestewa peak

(c) ABR

Piestewa Peak had another name is recent memory – a name that some local people still prefer. Now, I grew up in Phoenix and I knew this mountain by that previous name as well, but the switch to Piestewa was the right thing to do. It moved the mountain from a name that insulted indigenous women, to a name that honors Lori Piestewa, an Native American (Hopi) soldier who was killed in the line of duty during the Iraq War in 2003.

To my ears, Piestewa is a name that honors both our fallen warrior, and the mountain herself.

Now there are many places that we are seeking to rename to right some wrongs, to rediscover ancient names, and to better honor the places that we call home. These places have all seen more change than the human mind can grasp, and the least we can do is adapt with them. It’s time for some good change. So, if there is a place in your backyard that’s being considered for a new name, consider supporting it.

(As far as I can find, the O’odham name for the mountain may have been Vainom Do’ag or Iron Mountain.)

Want to See More Of Arizona?

I lived in Arizona for more than 30 years, so I’ve got lots of hiking and culture posts on the state. Just visit my Local’s Guide to Arizona.

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